GENDER ROLES – Hypoagency: Neoteny as a Feminine Gender Norm


Neoteny is the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. Here I am using it is a social sense. Here I am using it to mean the expectation on women and the permission they have to act in childlike ways and thereby also to be able to call for the prerogatives of a child – provision and protection to the point of putting the child’s interests and physical safety before one’s own. It is an appeal to privilege.

Helplessness and Victimhood – The narratives in Anglophone culture linking femininity to helplessness and victimhood are too familiar and too pervasive for me to have to go into any detail. I have called them toxic femininity. 2nd Wave feminists took dead aim at them in the 70s and then for some reason there was a retreat. For whatever reason, these memes have become entrenched in modern feminism.

“Rape culture” and the insistence that only men can stop rape are examples of this helpless victim mentality, but the impulse is much more pervasive. It seems as though whenever some harm to men is brought up it is simply de rigueur to find some way to say that women have it worse. Do men get raped too? Well, it’s worse for a woman to get rapaed than for a man! (Why? OMG! What a sexist question!!!) Well, when men get rpaed it’s always a one off, but when woemn get raped it’s a structural feature of teh Patriarchy, as revealed by prophetic utterance when the word of the Lord came to Susan Borwnmiller.

Here’s Typhonblue detailing one woman’s attempt to make a massacre of Serbian men and boys and only them into a harm to the women who survived because the deaths of their men deprived the women of their utility. That’s right – the men die but of course it’s the women who are the real victims.

This extends to the way feminists have latched on to black people’s oppression with the expression “women and minorities”. As Commenter Chris pointed out in the thread on toxic femininity:

“I know I’m late to the party, but this touches on something I’ve been wishing more people would talk about. To me, the feminist history of endless female oppression always read like a badly hijacked version of black history as told by the Civil Rights movement in the 60′s. When I first read feminist theory the whole oppressed/oppressor class dichotomy immediately jumped out at me as something borrowed from Civil Rights. It never sounded right because it sounded like language that was designed to talk about race and class but it was repurposed for gender instead.”

The common thread here is that in every situation women must be seen as the ultimate and most fundamental victims as if it’s a feature of their gender identity.

Men collude with and defend women in this for their own reasons, all of which ususally boil down to either getting to feel like the big, strong protector or else the one good man, the one with the refined moral sensibility. So when it comes to this social neoteny, you will find both tolerating and defending juvenile behavior in women as some kind of natural right, often by vociferously denying that women act less mature than men, that in fact on the contrary it’s men who act immature.

What’s the point here? What benefits do people expect from this insistence on victimhood?

Claim to Protection and Provision: All this neoteny and the benefits it confers come at a price. You get controlled like a child. (Not property. You are not property, you are a ward. Property can be sold at will.) If you ask someone else to defend and protect you to the point that you lose the ability to do that for yourself, then when they tell you they’ll defend you within a certain perimeter but not outside, you have no choice but to stay inside. If you don’t till land for your own food, then you live at someone else’s gift. If you live in a house someone else built, or that he inherited from his family instead of you from yours, then you do it at his pleasure.

So what’s the pay off? The payoff is that you stay inside and do housework while the men go out and do fieldwork. And as hard and grueling as housework was a hundred years ago and in all the ages before then, there was no question in anyone’s mind which was harder, housework or fieldwork.

(And yes I am quite aware that “Well, men kept women out of thiose jobs!” Yes of course they did; thanks for making my point. Men kept women out of those jobs just as they strove to keep other men out too. Organisms compete for resources – these nasty horrible, hard jobs paid better than anything else available to these men. Men competed for them. Women could have too; why did they fail? The question is how men succeeded at keeping women out. They succeeded because these jobs went to those who were strongest and most determined. Why were the women less determined, less strong? Because they could be. Because they had people for that – their men.

And lest his sound like these women were “living off their men”, if they were, then their men were living off them just as much. The cathedrals would never have been built without beer and we all know who invented that, and a man could not work a 12-hour shift in a coal pit for very many days wihtout someone feeding him when he got home. A man doing this kind of work could not possibly live, could not continue doing that work, living on his own. Running a household was a full-time job before “labor-saving devices” and packaged foods came along, and his choices were either a boarding house or a marriage.)

Indicators of Neoteny: There are two sets of indicators of neoteny – physical and behavioral. Dogs show a lot of physical neoteny as compared with wolves, but where they really differ is in their behavior – face licking, tail wagging, barking – and all these are juvenile behaviors.

With humans when it comes to changing one’s appearance from male to female, the experts are drag queens. And what do we see them doing? They make themselves up so that their eyes seems larger, their mouths smaller, they raise the timbre of their voices, and if they happen to have a long jaw and a square chin or big hands, it is grounds for despair. Those are all neotenous features and they all come down to smallness and daintiness.

The same thing applies to humans and their behaviors. Let’s look at some neotenous behaviors:

Language behaviorsWord elongation, increased of rapport-building discourse markers, extra fast speech, high-pitched voice (higher than a person’s actual voice) – these are all humilific, ingratiating behaviors and are typical of juveniles. Raising the pitch of your voice makes you sound smaller and younger.

Ditziness – Women complain about this neoteny and the burdens it imposes but the complaint that recurs the most is the need to appear stupid. But this is as far as this goes. There are other kinds of ditziness – retreat into emotionalism (see below), antipathy towards logic, changing one’s mind, shifting the goalposts and other refusals of accountability – yet oddly enough we see women embracing these. Logic as patriarchal oppression, language as androcentric whatever, the general impressionistic style of so much feminist argumentation – these are not behaviors of people who take themselves seriously. They are juvenile behaviors.

Ditziness.2 – The exaggerated, histrionic emotional demonstrativeness we associate with feminity is another form of ditziness or lack of gravity. In Anglo culture this is gendered although it quite obviously is not inherently gendered – men in certain cultures are quite deminstrative. interestingly this has the same devaluing effect when they are viewed through Anglo yes. and it’s not just Anglo culture – Sinosphere cultures consider emotional self control, like any other form of self-control, to be a sign of maturity and the lack of it to be a sign of immaturity. The difference is they expect it in both genders.

The rawness goes into thjis in pretty good depth here.

Youthful colors and dress – Pink is for girls and not for men, but have you ever wondered why? And not just pink either; all kinds of bright colors and pastel colors. What’s the common thread? These are all youthful colors, the colors of spring – bright, gay, happy and light-hearted. Serious people don’t dress like this, carefree kids do.

Age and weight – When I was little one of the many rules I was taught was that you never ask a lady her age, or even refer to it. It was just hideously insulting for some reason. And then I found not just ladies but women in general really felt this way. That’s neoteny right there, but it gets worse.

Have you noticed how grown women will refer to themsleves and their peers as “girls”? This was a feminist shibboleth once upon a time and it may still be; I hope it is. But callin a woman “girl” is nowhere as insulting as calling a man “boy”. that is because of gendered expectations of maturity.

Fat people are big, not dainty. Not dainty and feminine. So fate is heinous. Fatphobia is a form of neotenous fixation on smallness and daintiness. When fat women say they get worse treatment than men do because fat is more accepted in men, this is what they are talking about.

Compliance with authority: We hear that girls mature faster and act more mature in the early grades, and this is probably true – depending on your definition of maturity. If you are  a classroom teacher looking for cooperation so you can keep order, compliance is going to look like maturity. We hear that women are socialized to “please people”, but when we look to see they are striving to please, it is usually someone of higher status – a boss, a woman or higher social status, or someone they elevate to that level (as when a mother in a restaurant makes a servile display of trying to get a child to order something and starts talking like a waiter talking to a customer.)

Now in the main, this is the mechanism of living together as humans. Compliance with legitmate authority is crucial to a functioing organization or even just getting along in civil soceity. But where adults make conscious decisons to comply or not, children are usually expected to comply as a matter of course.

Note how the traditional Anglo male role eschews a lot of this, as if in reaction to it.

Man up: A couple of years ago there was some discussion in the gendersphere about the expression “Man up”. The discussion went into how the term was both misogynist and misandrist, but mainly along the axis of gender. The expression was thought to imply that a man was deficient by not being masculine enough or by being too feminine. This missed half the semantic load of the expression. The other half had to do with adukthood, as in “man” vs. “boy”.

Why was that missed? I think it’s because people were making a false equivalence between “man” and “woman”, and “woman” did not imply an expectation of adulthood. If you look at the situations where the expressions in employed, and usually deployed, against a man, it comes down to urging him to take on some adult burden or other. Why is there then no “woman up”?

So that’s how hypoagency in the form of neoteny functions and how it appears in the traditional feminine gender role, and the kind of privilege it confers. It comes with a horrible cost – oh, the burdens of privilege! – but next we will see how that cost is dodged when we discuss how class is gendered and how gender has developed into a class system.

Jim Doyle
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Jim Doyle

<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="3075">7 comments</span>

  • I don’t dislike female neoteny per se; I think it can be adorable as an occasional mating behavior for women. The problem that I have with it is also in the social sense, in the sense that women do it all the time and with all men. It becomes their very identity, rather than an occasional playful interlude. And they struggle when that skill gets taken away from them, such as with aging 50-something women who complain about having become “invisible” (aka for the first time in their lives they are viewed primarily as adults).

    I made a comment along these lines about female beauty standards on Reddit.

    It really has gotten to the point where if people aren’t constantly fawning over and praising them, they think it’s some sort of injustice, or that they’re being shamed for being ugly. It is an immature, entitled attitude. It’s an entitlement to a frustrating level of passivity, to neoteny, immaturity, and to basically live out their entire lives as if they were entitled to all the perks and favors of the proceptive phase of a chivalrous relationship… and not just behave this way around one man, but around all men.

    What I was pointing out there is that the narrowness of female beauty standards isn’t a real problem. It is the entitlement to be perceived as beautiful in the first place that is the real issue. And neoteny is part of it. Without youthful beauty, without neoteny, there can be no hypoagency and the bias towards viewing women as helpless victims disappears. Given that we have too much of that as it is, what we should really be doing is narrowing beauty standards even more.

    Incidentally, diseases such as bulimia and anorexia often have a neotenous aspect to them; they sometimes manifest themselves in young ladies as a fear of attaining a mature female body, curves and all. The death of a parent can sometimes trigger an eating disorder. I would theorize that if someone derives her sense of control over her life via hypoagency, then she can be driven so hard towards neoteny that it can be viewed as a pathology.

  • “I don’t dislike female neoteny per se; I think it can be adorable as an occasional mating behavior for women.”

    Female neoteny is human neoteny and there is no denying how advantageous that has been for the species. and further, on the personal level a certain degree of emotional youthfulness is the core of creativity.

    I agree with you on what the real problem with it is. Among other things is denies women full adulthood if they buy into it.

    And I also agree that the entitlement around attractiveness – and whoa boy it is very real -is neotenous. Adoration is due an infant and everyone else should have to work for it.

  • I suppose there are two kinds of neoteny. A natural developmental trait that we really can’t fault and then a false neoteny that one gender in particular accentuates in itself in order to exploit natural social biases for personal gain. I can see this getting confusing.

  • There are these two kinds of neoteny. There’s the natural neoteny that all humans display and then there is this culturally mediated neoteny we see in women in one culture but not all.

    It’s analogous to disposability. disoposability is an evolutionary strategy in social species, and it sue has worked for ours. But there is a differnece between the natural disposability that is part of beingand adult providing for and protecting the group and this lopsided assigment of disposability to one part of the adult population with a concomittant relief for the other part of the population.

    Saying anything non-tricvial about social phenomena is going to take us into confusing places, there is not getting around it. Here’s an example of how complex and confusing one area of social behavior can be, and this is after a couple of centuruies of concerted effort to understand it.

    You don’t need to read all 64 pages to get the gist of what the guy is saying about the irreducible diversity of language. OTOH the weekend is coming up and it will keep you away from those barracudas in the bar scene you have mentioned before.

  • OTOH the weekend is coming up and it will keep you away from those barracudas in the bar scene you have mentioned before.

    Nah, I just got a dog… it’s keeping me very busy. I’ll probably drive up to Vermont and go hiking. Plus I’m running a marathon in a couple weeks.

  • Running a marathon in a couple of weeks. Your timning is eerily good.

    When you get a chance scan across that paper. This is the degree of complexity the gender discussion should be able to deal with.

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